WASHINGTON — When Charley Burwick first heard the snowy owl rumor, he decided it wasn't worth his time. It was risky business to drive a few hours to Kansas City, Mo., to catch a glimpse of a bird that could fly away at a moment's notice.
But as talk of the snowy owls' atypical prevalence in the United States continued to swirl among the birder community, Burwick, a Springfield, Mo., resident, started his car and joined those around the nation going to lengths to spot this white diurnal bird.
The snowy owls' descent from Canada has cropped up on listservs for the Audubon Society's 112th annual Christmas Bird Count. The bird has come hunting for sustenance further south in the United States, and participants in the 112th annual count have taken notice, said the National Audubon Society's chief scientist, Gary Langham.
Since Dec. 14, avid bird watchers, scientists and families have bundled up and spent time tallying and identifying birds with one of the environmental organization's more than 2,200 "count circles" in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, Central America, Antarctica and the Pacific Islands. The two-week count ends Thursday.
Although official full reports will not be available until late spring or early summer, this year's mild weather has most likely left participants with fewer birds to count, according to Christmas Bird Count director Geoff LeBaron.
"The birds don't need to be concentrated, so they are much more dispersed," he said.
Each year, with a veteran counter as a guide, bird watchers take a segment of their designated area and craft a list of which birds participants have spotted. The same locations are used each year to ensure the data is uniform, and the National Audubon Society compiles all the counting circles' information.
"I don't think I've missed a year since 1986," said Burwick, who organizes the count circle in Missouri's Taney County, south of Springfield.
What started in 1900 as a way to stop a Christmas bird-hunting tradition has turned into the longest running wildlife survey in the world, according to Audubon.
It's the "granddaddy of citizen science," used by hundreds of scientific publications to identify endangered birds and track migration patterns that can indicate a global climate change, said David Bonter, an ornithologist who's worked at Cornell University for 10 years.
"Birds exist over large areas, and the only way we have to track populations is to enlist the public," he said. "It's widely accepted as a very viable and relevant way of gathering information."
During the past 40 years, data from the Christmas Bird Count is showing more birds are found farther north, Bonter said. The federal Environmental Protection Agency used this shift in a 2010 report, titled "Climate Change Indicators in the United States," as evidence of a global change in weather patterns.
Thus, the annual count is about much more than simply counting birds, said Audubon Society's senior communications manager, Delta Willis. It ensures scientists are monitoring the environment, she said.
"Birds are often thought of as an excellent indicator of the health of an ecosystem," said Langham, Audubon's chief scientist. "Where birds thrive, people prosper."
Although many bird species have been spotted farther north over the years, the snowy owl flew south this year to Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas in search of grub. There was a shortage in Canada — its typical home this time of year — of lemmings, the birds' main food source, Langham said.
The owls had a "bumper crop" over the past year, meaning they had lots of babies and not enough lemmings to feed on, he said.
"Hungry owls start moving further and further south looking for food," he said.
For Janice Greene, a biology professor at Missouri State University in Springfield, the Christmas Bird Count is an excuse to instill a love of nature in her two teenage daughters.
"I think it's really important to get my kids involved because they need to be exposed to the outdoors to develop that appreciation and awareness of not only the birds but everything else that's out there," said Greene, whose classes include an introductory course on ornithology.
And although — to her dismay — she missed spotting this year's snowy owl invasion, she said it was still "a good family time. I really enjoy it."
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